Commentary

Disciples


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Friday, March 8, 1889

     10 A.M. W. by the window. Hands folded. Breakfast just eaten. The Record on his knee. Did not look very well. I said: "Doctor will ask me first thing when I see him in town: How's Walt? So, How is

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he?"
W. pleased. "Tell Doctor you found me here after my breakfast, sitting with a paper, trying to interest myself in the affairs of the nation." Then laying his right hand down on the paper as if to hit a certain spot: "I make no calculations on that administration at all: after that inaugural I am done with it." I quoted one of the sentences of the inaugural: "That which was the body has come to be only the rich fringe of the nation's robe." W. thought the metaphor rather questionable: "Ah! it is not only foolish—it's not true either." Then continued his message for Bucke (as to health): "I can only say it in these words: the same story continued: my cold still persists: my head is still much choked by it."

     After asking: "Well—what have you on the tapis today?" W. got on the subject of his books. First referred to the Oxford Bible. "It seems to me quite a study: I have looked at it carefully—want to go back to it: it deserves close attention. The question is, can we get paper like that in America? I very much doubt it." But we could try. W. said: "The Doctor is, by the way, quite set in the notion that A Backward Glance should go in as a preface rather than as an epilogue." I said: "I differ from Doctor: I told him so the other day when we talked the thing over." W. said: "So do I—so do I: but Doctor argues that it is always understood that the preface of a book is the last thing in it written." As to precedent in the matter: "I care nothing at all about that; it has no weight with me at all. I know something is to be said for the preface—one thing, literary habit, that has lasted for centuries and centuries—been long and long and long and long the practice: it certainly has a sort of confirmation to boast of: still, that is not conclusive." He was slowly talking along with very little spur from me. "My book has its own place: it is independent of traditions: it obeys none of the accustomed rules. The argument having weight with me is not this, not that, not this or that has been, not so and so is likely to be: no, none of these: but what is the stamp, the direction, of my own thought? and that is decidedly now with me in favor of the epilogue."

     Why bother about custom in a matter of that sort? He "for one" would "not do it." "I'll do what I do," he said, "not with any wish to be false to the common standards but with the resolution to be true to my own appointed order of life." I raised the question whether the Backward Glance piece should be paged continuously from the

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poems that will precede it. But W. shook his head: "I am not in the least concerned on that point: we must not borrow trouble: these little things all find their places if you let them alone." He instanced the big book. "It is significant, it has perfect unity: I am more and more persuaded of that: I take a certain sort of pride in it. I don't know how we ever did the big book: it's a mystery how we ever did it, considering the difficulties we encountered: Dave seems to think we just blundered into it: I am almost getting to think he is right: at any rate the idea has a consistence more and more striking to me." He said further: "Even O'Connor's booky bookishness seems to have thoroughly accepted it, which is a good sign: he seems to have been greatly taken with its typographical layout—the mechanical incidents." Then he added after a pause: "I must look out: I don't know whether I'm not in danger of flattering myself too much on that." He considered O'C. "one of the best of judges"—yet also "thoroughly human," so that he was saved from "the worship of technique" "he has lived so much with books." Then he wound up: "But as I have said, the fact below all other facts is the impression, good or bad, that my work finally makes on me—the response it meets with, in my own consciousness."

     W. talked of handwritings, "good and bad manuscripts," of "the terrible affectations of writers." He shook his finger at me: "You are showing a little disposition that way yourself: Look out." Again: "Even Bucke knocks me badly at times: he strings a whole line of words together at any rate, in a style, that dazes me." I said: "A fellow gets absorbed in what he's writing, and don't notice how he writes." W. acknowledged "the significance of that fact" but thought "writers should school themselves." "I think it a good plan to copy the manuscripts: never send away the original drafts." I called his attention to his own manuscript Notes at Beginning and End from the complete W. W. "They puzzled the printers," I said. "I know," he said: "my own defect is more in the direction of interpolation, interlineation—in the insertion of words: I am only slowly satisfied with my verbal achievements: I remake over and over, as you have seen." He was "confirmed," he said, by something I quoted from West, of The New Ideal, to me: "I wish you could write not only a little oftener but (shall I dare say it?) a little better! You make compositors swear."


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     W. got off some fatherly admonitions. "See? you may not know what you are coming to," &c. Then he said: "Nellie O'Connor has the angular style—this way: first up, then down: then up, then down: always angular, sharp—so"—indicating by a swing of the hand. He classed Mrs. Coates "with the bad penmen." Then: "But I know no offenders so extreme as the English: it seems to be their arrogant assumption that it is vulgar to write well: so many of even the good fellows drop into that infamous yawning gulf." I laughed. He said: "I didn't mean that for fun." I said: "It was funny, anyhow: that infamous yawning gulf." He laughed himself. "Yes: that sounds a bit tragic, but after all it's a serious matter. I do not claim to be exempt: I am myself an offender: only, I am also an old stager, an ex-printer, a craftsman: I know what the damnable practice signifies."

     Very easy in his manner today. "I always enjoy the story of Lord Palmerston—think it very happy: there was a clerk somewhere under him deficient in grammar, spelling: somebody complained: but Palmerston said: 'He does his work well, understands, says the things we want said in the way we want them said: that is sufficient: we have not bargained for anything else.' Which means only that we are to be taken for what we are on the whole, not for what we may be in pieces." "Under that ruling you can forgive the band penman in the good writer," I said. He said: "That is so: I do not forget: but I still say to the army of the illegibles, for God's sake do the best you can to write so we can at least get some clues to what you are trying to say!" Then gently: "And as for me—may the Lord forgive me!"

     Bucke and I took one of the Camden ferry cabs yesterday and went to Dooner's in it. It seemed to amuse the people we passed in Market Street. It looked as if it had come out of the ark. The canvas was ripped in half a dozen places. The horse was bony. The cabby was old and tired. People pointed us out to other people. Doctor called it "Noah's Ark." Gurd and I exploded. B. exclaimed: "What the devil's the matter with you fellows?" The story convulsed W. He said: "Those cabs are bad enough when they're good: when they're bad they beat hell."

     W. gave me an old Burroughs letter. He asked: "Are you in a hurry?" I said: "Yes and no." He asked: "Does your yes mean that you're not in too much of a hurry to read me this letter?" I laughed

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and said: "I can make it mean that." He said: "Do"—and settled in his chair to listen.


Middleton, N. Y.,
May 14, 1873.

Dear Walt.

I received your letter, and the papers you so kindly sent me—both very welcome. The sight of the Washington papers forthwith induces a fit of homesickness in poor Suly, who seems to pine for the place and our old home there more than I do. I have got somewhat wonted here, and then I am busy and have many things to interest me, and she has little or nothing. Then that home in W. was of course more to her than to me; her time was all passed there and only a part of mine. Still at times my thoughts all go back [ "God knows, John! mine do now: to you, to William, to all of them!"] and hover and nestle about the little home and the many familiar places. I expect it will be a good while before either of us are weaned from W. I am about to see the place. The bargain can be closed whenever I come on, which will be by Sunday I think. Then we will be quite homeless again, and I expect wife will be happy enough. I hope to be in W. on Sunday evening or Monday morning. I was grieved, dear Walt, that you were still confined to W. and not able to go home; but your faith in your ultimate entire recovery is cheering. I hope it may be more speedy. I look forward to many delightful days with you yet, after I have built me another nest up here by the Hudson. You will come and spend weeks and months with us and we will all be happy again. [ "Oh! the good John! that was one of our dreams which never came true!"] The Spring is backward here; no lilacs yet and no signs of any. But the grass, the good green grass, is wonderful. It seems as if I never saw it so perfect before. This you know is a great grazing and butter country. The fields and the spread of farms around are delightful to behold. They have something of the smooth, mellow, well-kept look of the English fields, while their freshness and tenderness are marvellous. I graze in them with my eyes daily. [ "Oh God! how hungry, thirsty, that makes me for outdoors! oh John! here I am trying to dream your fields, farms, woods, skies, into my prison walls!"] Grass like this is never seen so far south on the Potomac. Yesterday I made a trip

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to Sugar Loaf Mountain, fifteen miles below here, and could see over nearly the whole country from its summit, and could see the Catskills fifty miles to the north, and peaks that I recognized as visible from my parents' home in Delaware County. But the rolling succession of green fields was the most wonderful.


I have plenty of time on my hands now, but do not seem able to turn it to any account in a literary way. I am like a cow that has lost her "cud." I can't get back my ruminating habit. [ "He got it back after awhile, Horace: it was then richer, more fecund, than ever."] If I could only begin once more. [ "He did begin once more: he began hundreds of times more!"] I think there are several pieces I could write. I have seen my father make an artificial cud for a cow, but I know of no receipt by which I can compound an intellectual one for myself. [ "Maybe John found that cud since: maybe: I rather think he has: what a man cannot get out of himself he's not likely to derive from any other quarter."] The first of my bird pieces with Scribner will not be out till July; when The Birds of the Poets will be out I have not heard.

I take The Tribune, so had seen the letter about Emerson. I am glad the old fellow is having a good time. Conway is no doubt happy.

Wife sends much love. Hoping to see you in a few days I am

Ever your friend

John Burroughs.


     W. said: "John is so fine and inclusive in so many ways I often wonder that he has not got along somewhere beyond his despairs: that letter was written sixteen years ago: take him today: he's today just about where he was then in that one respect, though his general strength and sanity have undoubtedly increased. John's defect, if you may call it that, is temperamental—must have been congenital: I once thought he would outgrow it: when he first came to Washington he was on the ragged edge—thought it was about time to die anyway: but he improved spiritually and that had its fortunate physical reactions." I asked: "Then you can see no change in John but to the good?" "No: no essential change: John is not so outright, so unreserved, so irrevocable, so without exceptions, as William: he is more submissive to the exactions of the traditional world: he does not so much give in as not give out: I am never doubtful of him. I

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have said to you that I miss the tonic that I formerly realized in him: well, so I do: a little something is gone: but for the rest he is just as he was."
When I left W. I said: "I'll be back probably by and by." He said: "Yes, I want you to come: and be sure you bring Doctor along with you."

     5.30 P.M. Again to W.'s, this time with Bucke. I went upstairs ahead of the others. W. had thrown open the middle window. Sat there using a big china cup as a finger bowl. Said: "I am just over my dinner"—asking then: "Won't you sit down?" and "Has the Doctor come?" Here Ed stuck his head in the door: "Oh! shall they come up, Mr. Whitman?" "Who is it, Ed? the Doctor? Oh yes! tell him to come." Turning to me then: "Ed must have supposed I was in a row up here." I asked: "Us in a row?" W.: "Oh no! there's no danger of that: he heard a noise up here: did not see you come up, perhaps—wondered what the bustle was about." Bucke and Clifford came in. W. greeted them with great cordiality. Stayed there till about 6.10 or 6.15. Talking of all sorts of things.

     W. asked: "Is it too cold for anybody here?" Then: "After my meal, my dinner, I put up the sash—so—on all these milder days: today is debatable ground, isn't it? with tendencies to the mild?" Bucke said: "Walt, you should get all the good air in here that you can stand even if it makes you shiver a little." W. asked: "Maurice, do you think I'm too much coddled here? If you'll prescribe for me on the ventilation question I'll take your medicine even if I die for it." Bucke said: "I'll only prescribe your own common sense for you, Walt: use your common sense—that's my prescription." W. said: "When I go out of the room, to the bathroom, as I do at least twice a day, I throw open one window and the door, letting a current of air through the room: it is half an hour or more, each time."

     Bucke laughed. W. looked at him inquiringly: "What's the matter now, Maurice?" Bucke, still roaring with laughter, replied: "I was thinking of those long half hours, Walt." W. still puzzled: "What were you thinking, Maurice?" Doctor said between his ripples of merriment: "I was thinking that you must have some hard fights over there in the closet!" W. looked at B. again: said, "What"—stopped: broke loose in a broad smile. "Oh I see!" he said: "you sometimes come to wicked conclusions, Maurice." Then he got really grave and said: "Maurice—it's not all a joke: I've had some battles

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royal over there!"
W. kept saying: "When spring comes." Bucke said "Don't keep forever putting it off." After a little he himself felt cold. The sash was closed. The fire in the stove burned cheerfully. A dusty windy March day. "In the old times," W. said: "downstairs I could sit for hours, even cold days, by the open window." Bucke asked W. if he would resent having somebody wash the windows? W. said: "I'll neither guess it nor give it up."

     W. wished to be told about the meter. W. said to Bucke: "I guess it will be good if you get a million dollars and good if you do not." Today's experiments turned out well for the meter. W. said: "I am very glad that everything passed off well." I asked: "What would you do if the Doctor gave you a million out of his proceeds." He shook his head. "I should not accept it: to go all along as I have, only when near the journey's end to be burdened with such impediment—that would not do. If it had come to me years and years ago, when I was young and strong, I could perhaps have learned how to waste it: but even then? even then?" and so he passed it off with an amused and musing shrug of the shoulders. I picked the Hollyer etching up from the table. Showed it to Bucke. B. cottoned to it at once. W. said: "Do you like it, Maurice? Take it along then." But when B. exclaimed: "The best yet!" W. made no answer at all. He does not like it. "It is Mary Costelloe's Lear," he explained. Then advised me: "Give Maurice the handsome book from the table, Horace,"—the complete leather book, dedicated briefly, with a butterfly picture pasted by W. on one of the margins. W. said: "I found the picture: added it there for you: thought you would like it." Bucke was greatly delighted. He said to W., swinging the book into the air: "This is the key to all the ages!" W. said: "You must have a care, Maurice: the first thing you know you'll be set down for one of the lunatics." Bucke said: "Just so! but I've been marked for that long ago."

     Bucke asked W. if he had yet found the Gardner picture? This led to discursive talk of personal matters, W. saying among other things: "I shall look it up—tomorrow, if possible: it must be in the other room—at least, it was there: but you have no idea how much I have lost by theft—how many things have been stolen from me—these last two years." W. added: "Yes and I believe Maurice is right: that the human critter is a natural thief." I said something about the ease of

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pocketing things downstairs. "Not there alone," said W.: "it is up here too I have been afflicted—they have come—stolen: many little things which good friends gave me, which I never used, are gone—all gone—now." And then he said again: "Yes—the human critter is a natural thief!"

     Our talk was desultory. W. sat there for about ten minutes of the time soaping and washing his hands in the big cup, talking all the while. W. got hold of the Symonds portrait again. "Isn't that a stroke?" He said something to Maurice about it. "It still stands at the top," he said. W. gave me a letter as we were going out. "Take this with you: file it away: you'll see why when you read it."


London, April 8, 1868.

Dear Sir.

I am in receipt of your kind letter. The portrait of yourself we have given in the English Edition of "poems" will be superseded by one from the very fine photograph which Mr. Moncure Conway has lent me to be engraved. Should our second attempt not be satisfactory I will cheerfully avail myself of your offer.

Mr. Swinburne was very pleased to hear that his mention of yourself and literary labors had given satisfaction. He is now busy with Bothwell—a new poem which may be regarded as a sequel to his Chastelard.

You will have received some newspaper notices of the English edition by this time. I posted them a few days since. Enclosed is from John Bright's paper.

I am a little puzzled as to a good agent for the sale of our English selection from your "poems" in America. Any suggestions you may make will be thankfully received.

Please excuse the hasty scrawl—hasty to catch the post.

Yours very truly

John Camden Hotten.


     I told W. that Oldach took his message the other day good-naturedly. W. asked: "What message?" I said: "The pin message." He laughed. Bucke said: "What are you fellows talking about? What message? what pin?" I told Bucke the story. He guffawed. "You fellows are decidedly Rabelaisian," he said. W. was jocular over it.

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"That's the relief side, Maurice," he said: "that's how we let some of our superfluous steam off." I said: "Walt, there were no Rabelaisian passages in your relations with Emerson, I'll bet." He smiled: "I'll not bet," he said: "I know: Emerson couldn't say damn." Did he mean that literally? "Yes—literally: it amounts to that: it was a defect in his education." Exclaimed: "The sacred Emerson!" "All sky—no earth: is that it?" W.: "You might say it that way: in general I used to wish his perfect circle had a dent somewhere: but he was wonderful with all his excellence: he put on no sanctified airs."


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